The Empire of Britannia Magna rules two thirds of the world, into the depths of the ocean and beyond the atmosphere into space. Yet even as Queen Victoria prepares for the celebration to mark the 160th year of her reign, on the streets of London there is an undercurrent of discord: a malcontent prowls the capital, unpopular with both police and government, looking upon his fellow countrymen with disdain, cursing them and dismissing them as inferior to his refined breeding.
The problem is, this man is not moustache twirling villain Jago Kane of the Darwinian Dawn movement, but rather our alleged hero, self styled “dandy adventurer” Ulysses Quicksilver, defender of her majesty’s throne, and beyond that his loyalty is confined solely to his personal servant Nimrod. During a crisis, bystanders are referred to as “a chinless fop with a monocle and an oiled moustache” accompanied by “an equally inbred-looking pug-nosed girl,” before Quicksilver shoves a “protesting beetroot” out of his way; had he identified himself as an agent of the crown, he might have enjoyed more cooperation.
While a flawed hero should be more interesting than an untouchable paragon, Quicksilver instead is portrayed as a boorish, condescending braggart. A scene where he muses that his memoir would be a bestseller indicates that both creator and avatar would do well to learn modesty if they wish to attain that goal, as with their current attitude, it is no wonder that revolution is afoot.
This derisory tone mars the positive aspects of the novel. The story moves swiftly, the action scenes are dramatic and inventive, such as a dinosaur rampage through the streets of London, although Quicksilver only deigns to intervene when Westminster is directly threatened, dozens of ordinary citizens already trampled or consumed. This disregard is echoed when Quicksilver destroys a bomb factory without attempting to free the slaves labouring within. Any hero who treats the working class as disposable does not deserve the title, and it renders the novel distasteful.
While this novel flies the banner of Steampunk, influenced by the classics of H G Wells and Jules Verne, those stories entertained and enlightened in a sophisticated manner via narrators who were sensitive to the world and its wonders, and the suffering of its inhabitants. In truth, this novel resembles nothing so much as the “penny dreadfuls” of the 1900’s, a genre as unrefined as their target audience, but to a modern reader confronted with caricatures rather than characters, any charm quickly becomes tiresome.
Exposition is the bane of any writer, and while the world building is impressive and intricate, it is also overpowering; background could be filled in with small flourishes as the story progressed rather than having every texture and colour of a locale described and annotated with its significance in the greater grandeur of Magna Britannia. Many writers of modern fiction curse the immediacy with which mobile phones can circumvent dramatic tension, but Green is not averse to bending the conventions of his chosen genre by including “personal communicators,” incongruous amongst the fetishised Victoriana, yet adding nothing to the narrative.
While the plot, an attempt to intent on unseating the government and overthrowing the crown by unleashing a biological agent that can reverse evolution, is recycled from an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, taken as a whimsical romp, the book could be fun, if the fascistic and misogynist overtones are ignored. Channelling a different attitude, Green, who clearly has skill and ideas, could have crafted a novel of appeal to a less juvenile readership.
Unnatural History has recently been reprinted as part of The Ulysses Quicksilver Omnibus, also including the novels Leviathan Rising and Human Nature.